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A confident Romney zings Gingrich in Republican debate No. 19 (+video)

MItt Romney was ready to answer questions about his wealth and to rebut rival Newt Gingrich during Thursday's Republican debate, the last before the Florida primary on Tuesday.

By Staff writer / January 27, 2012

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, participate in the Republican debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday.

Matt Rourke/AP

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Episode 19 in the Great Republican Debate-a-thon may be most remembered for its spirited discussion of moon colonies. But it was Mitt Romney’s sharp performance that won the night in the last debate before Florida’s crucial primary next Tuesday.

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Mr. Romney delivered his most confident answer to date on his wealth – that it is a source of pride, not a reason to apologize. He zinged his top rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich, over an ad on immigration that he called “repulsive.” And he was ready with a comeback when Mr. Gingrich attacked him for having investments in Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Goldman Sachs: Gingrich, he pointed out, has investments in mutual funds that invest in Fannie and Freddie.

Gingrich backed down. The audience, which in previous debates had energized the former House speaker, applauded most for Romney.

The debate in Jacksonville, Fla., capped the week with the highest stakes to date for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. He lost last Saturday’s primary to Gingrich by 12 percentage points, and needed a strong showing Thursday in a bid to retake momentum. The latest polls of Florida Republicans, taken after South Carolina and before the debate, show Romney may already be on his way: He has reversed his decline and is back on top.

Earlier this week, after facing intense pressure to release his tax returns, Romney finally obliged and put out two years’ worth. The confirmation that he had money invested abroad – including in a Swiss account – will certainly show up in President Obama’s arsenal against the wealthy former businessman, if Romney is the nominee. But on Thursday, Romney pivoted off Gingrich’s populism and found his voice on a matter that his supporters have been urging him to address in positive terms: his vast wealth.

“I'm proud of being successful; I'm proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people,” Romney said. “I'm not going to run from that.”

Romney also got an assist from debate moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN. When Gingrich launched into his usual tactic of attacking a question, Mr. Blitzer didn’t back down, as CNN’s John King had a week ago during a debate in South Carolina.

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